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The ice gas cometh

9th of October, 2013

Brisbane Time, September 29, 2013 Katia Moskvitch

Crowded around a hole in the ice, the dozen or so people clad in thick jackets could be local fishermen. But the rope winch, carefully lowering a long, fat pipe into the frigid Siberian water, hints that it is not dinner they are here to catch.

The men on the ice are researchers from the Limnological Institute in nearby Irkutsk, and the treasure they are after, hidden at the bottom of Lake Baikal, is a trove of white, ice-like chunks called methane hydrates. Put a flame next to them and they'll ignite, burning what may be the cleanest fossil fuel currently known.

For over a decade, scientists from around the world have trekked to this remote corner of the Russian wilderness, funded by governments eager to understand how to exploit these peculiar accumulations. ''We've hosted scientists from everywhere - Japanese, Belgian, Indian and others,'' says Oleg Khlystov, a geologist at the Limnological Institute. They make the journey to Baikal because the lake's combination of storm-free waters, and - in the winter - a one-metre-thick ice platform, provide ideal conditions for studying the icy crystals below. This year, the effort finally paid off, and a race is now on to harness them. Whoever succeeds could usher in the world's next energy bonanza, and redraw the world energy map in the process.

You wouldn't have thought that these odd little compounds held such promise. When hydrates were first discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, their weird structure made them little more than curiosities in a chemist's lab: cage-like structures of frozen water entrapping an inner ''guest'' molecule. READ MORE.

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